Managing global continuous improvement programmes is like a Spiders Web!
One of the most challenging things I’ve encountered in managing continuous improvement (CI) projects is trying to coordinate activities across a team that’s spread out amongst several locations. Most recently I worked for a large US-based tech company, and our CI team was pretty much evenly spread out across four locations, with people in the US, Ireland, Germany, and Singapore.
“Global business” sounds pretty cool and exciting, but, as you can imagine, even trying to have a team phone call with that group was a bit of a nightmare – either somebody in the States was getting up at a ridiculous hour, or their colleagues in Europe and Asia were working well into their evenings. Because such live interactions, be they voice conference calls or video link, put such a strain on our people, we tried to keep them relatively infrequent, but this in turn made it even more important that we have a good system to share documents and other material amongst ourselves. Even if your team is not spread out as much as ours was, it can be difficult to effectively share information amongst colleagues, even if they’re sitting in the same building.
We in the CI world love to preach the virtues of standard work and having consistent processes, but think for a minute about the challenges of trying to standardize work within a CI team. You’d like everybody to be using not just a common problem solving method such as DMAIC (define-measure-analyze-improve-control) or PDCA (plan-do-check-act) but also to be using the same actual files, templates, and tools, so that there is a consistent corporate look and feel to the various projects. You’d also like to have visibility of the progress on each project – which ones are on time, which are running late or over budget, which are achieving their goals and which are struggling. But, of course, everybody hates filling out those status and progress reports, we’d all much rather be working on today’s improvements instead of doing paperwork about last month’s ones. Also, you’d like to be able to share best practices across the team, bounce things off each other, and help each other out when you need it. We CI professionals tend to thrive on this give and take, learning from each other and sharing our experiences and “war stories”. All of these things are really difficult even if the whole team is sitting at adjacent desks, and becomes truly daunting when they’re not.
The “solution” that most companies turn to, which is not actually a solution but is at least an attempt to deal with all this complexity, is usually some sort of file-sharing system. The simplest forms of these are just dedicated directory folders hosted on the company’s servers. Then there are slightly more sophisticated products such as Microsoft’s SharePoint, or cloud-based filing sharing services such as Dropbox. The architecture here, server-hosted or cloud-based, doesn’t really matter to us CI professionals (we’ll assume that our colleagues in the IT department can deal with any concerns around security or access), but what is important is that these simple file-sharing solutions don’t really solve the problem that we have. There is still a huge challenge in managing them and in “housekeeping” for all the various files, a constant struggle to bring order to the chaos. Our team had two people (out of about 20) who had the more-or-less fulltime job of policing and maintaining the files on the shared system. This is not particularly interesting or rewarding work, and not what most of us got into the CI world to be doing.
A far better answer than these simple file-sharing products is a dedicated CI portal, a place that everyone can access from anywhere in the world, at any time, but which is specifically designed to support a CI team and their projects. If this is properly structured and designed, it can take a lot of the manual effort out of keeping the files up to date and organized, and can also go far beyond just being a file-sharing repository. Of course it needs to be accessible by anyone on the team, wherever they may be, including when they’re traveling. But it also needs to support the types of activities that CI professionals engage in – using standard tools and templates, filling them out for individual projects and saving those in an area dedicated to that project, tracking their progress and any issues arising in a project, and, ideally, providing whatever documentation is needed for each project, thereby eliminating the need to fill out progress and status reports as a separate administrative burden.
The good news is that such CI Portal systems are now available, offering much greater functionality than simple file sharing and at not much greater cost. Stay tuned for the rest of my blogs.